SummaryWe thought it would be helpful to attempt a precis of the last 3 weeks, so here goes.
There is a range of databases holding information about children and young people, and a corresponding range of legislation that allows this information to be shared between education, social care, health, youth justice and law enforcement agencies
Many systems are concerned with a ‘predictive’ agenda – identifying children from an early age whom agencies believe may commit criminal offences in the future. The criteria used to make such a judgment include a large number of factors including poverty, getting bored easily, being a victim of bullying, truanting, having a parent with mental health problems and living in a deprived area. Information about the children identified can be shared without the consent of the child and his/her parents.
This predictive agenda has now been extended to identify children who have what are described as ‘low-level’ welfare problems because it is believed that intervening early may prevent them from developing more serious problems. This type of system has been in use for several years by the Connexions service for teenagers, which uses an assessment tool to identify personal problems that may create ‘barriers to learning’, and brokers access to services.
A new in-depth personal assessment tool (the Common Assessment Framework) that captures information about the child, and the competence of his/her parents, has been designed to be used by any agency if a practitioner believes the child needs more services than that particular agency can provide. It appears that information that a child provides about other people may be collected without the consent of the person to whom it refers.
Social Services are moving over to an electronic record system (ESCR) to be developed along the lines of the NHS information system, and planned links between the two are under discussion.
A central index of all children from birth is currently being established to hold each child’s basic details, plus contact information for each practitioner working with the child. This will act rather like a telephone directory to indicate which agencies are working with a child, and enable practitioners to contact each other in order to share information, discuss the child and decide what s/he needs. Consideration is being given to linking this Children’s Index to the National Identity Register in order to create a single national population register.
Although the Children’s Index was initially promoted as a child protection measure in the wake of the Laming Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, plans to provide ‘joined-up’ services had actually been under discussion for several years prior to this, as part of the programme to ‘modernise’ government. This modernisation aims to harness developments in IT in order to provide government services electronically (‘e-government’). It is envisaged that everyone - child or adult - will eventually have a central file that acts as a ‘hub’ for government services.
The green paper ‘Every Child Matters’ changed the definition of the phrase ‘at risk’. Until now, when applied to a child, this has been taken to mean at risk of 'significant harm' from abuse or neglect. It now means at risk of social exclusion, of missing out on services or education, or of committing crime. The repeated use of ‘at risk’ has created confusion and led many people to believe that the Children’s Index is solely a child protection measure. The same can be said of the repeated use of the word ‘safeguarding’.
The legislation that establishes the Children’s Index allows information to be collected and shared without the knowledge or consent of child and parents. The fine details of exactly what information can be collected are left to the Secretary of State to decide and lay down in regulations.
There is considerable confusion around the issue of consent to the sharing of information between agencies. Youth Justice Board guidance says that it is not necessary to have consent before sharing information. RYOGENS provides a list of statutes that can be used to justify overriding any refusal of consent; some of these are wide, general powers. The Connexions service takes a single blanket consent that allows agencies to access a young person’s record on the Connexions database.
Recent government guidance says that consent should be sought before sharing information, unless the child is at risk of abuse or likely to commit a serious crime; the guidance also says that this consent can be taken from someone aged under 16 without parental involvement if a practitioner believes that s/he has sufficient understanding. The basis for this assertion is a House of Lords judgment in 1985 (in a case called Gillick) which makes it possible for health professionals to give contraceptive treatment to under-16s without parental consent. Whether this judgment can be extended to cover situations other than a medical setting has not been tested in the courts, and the common law position is that parents are responsible for their children until they are 16.
The guidance is not statutory, and it will be up to each area ‘Local Safeguarding Children Board’ to develop its own information-sharing agreement.
At the moment, pilots are being conducted in order to decide what data should be put on the Children’s Index. During the summer, the government intends to hold a public consultation, and then draw up final regulations for the Children’s Index. These will be laid before Parliament during the autumn.